Robe River dispute – Socialist Action articles


A selection of articles from the publication Socialist Action on the 1986 Robe River dispute and its aftermath


Liz Ross

Socialist Action no.13 October 1986, p.11

“If they do drive us out, they’ll never mine another ton of ore at Pannowonica.”

The Robe River worker was defiant. So were many of the women workers and wives hit by Peko Wallsend’s mass sacking. “It’s a matter of principle,” said one working mother.

But more than determination will be needed to win the latest onslaught on Australian workers’ conditions. After SEQEB, Mudginberri, Dollar Sweets and the BLF deregistration, it has become clear that unions must meet fire with fire to defeat such employer offensives. So far, that has not been happening at Robe River.

Having gained 50% equity in Robe River, Peko Wallsend management appears to have its sights firmly set on increasing profits in the face of a slump in world market prices for iron ore.

To do that, it needs to dramatically increase productivity. And to do that, Peko boss Charles Copeman needs to dramatically undermine union organisation and control over jobs. To gain the upper hand in future disputes, Peko management must build up reserves of iron ore, basically by breaking down work practices that currently prevent this.

Add in Charles Copeman’s own ideological leanings – he is a vocal supporter of the New Right HR Nicholls Society and opposes having elections for Federal Parliament – and you have the recipe for Peko’s confrontationist stance. Their determination has been strengthened by the ongoing negotiations for a new two year agreement for all Pilbara workers.

After spending six months reviewing operations, Peko directors made their move.

They swept the Perth office clean, sacking or demoting all six managers. Then, taking one of their trusted mine managers from interstate, they moved on the mining towns. They delivered new working conditions and a voluntary redundancy package to mine workers at the end of July.

While mining unions appealed to the West Australian Industrial Relations Commission (WA IRC) to restore conditions, Peko Wallsend gave another 60 workers an option – work in any job we give you or be sacked. The workers refused and were sacked. The IRC ordered their reinstatement and Peko retaliated by sacking everyone.

Management locked out the workforce for three weeks, while the unions and the West Australian government tried to pressure Copeman to reinstate the 1100 workers. Rather than comply, Peko took the dispute another step further at the beginning of September. It directed its white collar labour force to do the work of blue collar workers and start operations up again.

On the same day that most of the staff labour crossed the picket lines and began work as directed, the company finally agreed to take back the sacked workers. The question at this point was why did Peko stop there? Why did it not go for broke and try to bring on a whole new workforce of contract scab labour?

There are several reasons. Pressure was increasing on the company, especially from its Japanese partners who favoured cooperation rather than confrontation (and had the profit results to back it up). The Liberal Party began distancing itself, anxious not to be tarred with the New Right brush. The Burke ALP [WA] government was also applying pressure. The possibility of losing contracts was another important factor.

The company had also achieved its aim of dismantling some of the work practices. They had convincingly divided the workforce and now had the prospect of using staff labour as a strike breaking forces for future disputes.

Where does all this leave the workers at Robe River?

Workers in the Pilbara have managed over the years to build up an impressive array of health and safety provisions, better pay and in some cases, a level of control over the work itself. For example, some workers elect their own leading hands and make decisions over which machinery (and therefore which job) is to be used.

It is these hard-won conditions that Peko is attacking. But the official union response has been largely ineffectual. So far, the rank and file appears to have accepted the leaderships’ line.

First, (although in this case against official recommendations), 170 workers accepted the redundancy agreement. These workers have not been replaced.

Then Peko’s attempt to force more workers out on the pretext of reassigning them to new duties. Elderly canteen workers were ordered to do heavy digging jobs. The workers rightly refused to move and were sacked. The union leaders supported this course, but also advised against retaliatory industrial action.

After pickets were set up, officials recommended that workers disperse if police told them to. They argued against solidarity action; one union leader said that shutting down the Pilbara region “would be cutting our own throats” as it would unite the employers and workers would go back to fewer jobs. Apparently the throats are not being cut at the moment!

At a meeting of 40 union officials from the Pilbara, the strongest decision taken was merely to call on the Federal Government to force Peko Wallsend back into compliance with the rulings of the IRC by the use of export licence regulations and legislation.

There does appear to have some rank and file readiness to take action and spread the dispute.

Other workers in the Pilbara levied themselves and building workers in Perth held stopwork meetings. Actions like these could have been the beginnings of a real fightback for workers at Robe River.

Conceivably, some of the workers will now begin the difficult but necessary task of establishing a rank and file run campaign to restore the lost conditions. Kim Metcalfe, an AMWU shop steward, expressed some of the anger with the defeats that unions have been accepting.

“How much more are we supposed to take? It’s about time we started doing it our way.”

It was a fighting response that unionists all over Australia would do well to take up.


Round 2 ends at Robe River

Socialist Action no.16 February 1987 p.12

Liz Ross

Round two in the continuing saga of Robe River ended last month, when Peko Wallsend’s workers accepted an ACTU peace package and ended a five week strike.

Things came to a head in the Pilbara in December when Peko, continuing its vendetta against work practices which caused last August’s dispute, tried to use one driver instead of two on the big shovels.

The shovel operators struck, Peko moved in staff scabs, the train drivers struck in sympathy and Peko moved in more staff to scab on them too. After a week, the whole of Robe River was out on indefinite strike, although the vote was close – 160-110 at Cape Lambert.

Other workers in the Pilbara levied themselves for the strike fund. And in a vital move, the Seamen’s Union black-banned Robe River iron ore, threatening exports to Japan.

As in the first Robe River dispute and in accordance with New Right theory, Peko boss Charles Copeman threw law suits around like confetti. He tried to sue workers for breach of contract, then the unions under the Trade Practices Act, then individual unionists for “inciting, procuring and persuading others to break their work contracts”. In all 33 writs were issued.

But the battle was not just on the legal front. While the ACTU’s Simon Crean jawboned in negotiating sessions, the company advertised 32 workers’ jobs and then broke a 100-strong picket at Cape Lambert with police.

Eventually after throwing out Crean’s first peace package (described by one worker as “achieving nothing for us”), the workers forced some concessions from Peko and returned to work. The concessions included preference for union labour, consultation before further changes and withdrawal of all writs.

Simon Crean called it a victory for common sense, but AMWU convenor Neil Flynn warned, “The strike is over but the dispute is not.”

Indeed, it is not. While Peko has been forced back to the Industrial Relations Commission once more, their confrontationism and the unions’ earlier restraint has allowed them to rapidly dismantle work practices. As a result they have forced up production from 100 tonnes per worker per shift before last July, to 200 tonnes by November.

Peko has also won on staff cuts. After 170 workers took the company’s redundancy package in July more quit by December and 300 left during the latest strike. Peko has agreed to rely on natural wastage rather than retrenchments from now on, a move that will still run down staffing while saving on redundancy payouts.

The resistance of Peko’s workers, however, means that the rest of the ruling class is not convinced about following its tactics.

Peko has shown that it can force the pace of change, but at the cost of jeopardising Australia’s iron ore exports to Japan, which are vital to the economy, through industrial disputation.

For Peko, which is only Australia’s third biggest producer, this is a risk worth taking. It aims to drive down production costs to undercut its competitors and increase its market share. It also wants to reorganise its resources for rapid expansion of ore production in the Pilbara.

For other iron producers with a bigger stake, the risks are not worth it. They want to maintain their share of the Japanese market by offering a more reliable source than their Brazilian and Indian competitiors. This has become doubly crucial now that Japan is cutting orders by 15% and demanding up to a 10% price cut.

So it is not out of concern for workers, but for profits, that Hamersley Iron’s Gordon Freeman says of Robe River’s confrontations, “Gentlemen, there has to be a better way.”

For workers in an employers’ system, however, there has only ever been one way to defend themselves. The Peko workers and their supporters in the Seamen’s Union have just shown what that is.


Profits Up

Peko-Wallsend notched up a record $50 million profit last financial year, an 84% rise. Most of it came from the Robe River iron ore operation. Seems those “restrictive work practices” aren’t restrictive enough!

Socialist Action  no.14 November 1986 p.6



How we lost at Robe River – and why

Socialist Action no.19 May 1987 p.13

Liz Ross

The milestone disputes at Robe River have been portrayed as setbacks for the New Right. But were they?

Graeme Haynes, Electrical Trades Union shop steward from Peko Wallsend’s Cape Lambert site, paints a different picture.

“Conditions at Robe River have never been worse. Instead of getting rid of 185 people, the company’s got rid of 400 by simple attrition and they haven’t paid a zac out. Blokes have gone to jail, there have been police  raids initiated by the company, wives and kids have been harassed. And a lot of trade union officials have the temerity to suggest there was some sort of victory.”

Graeme, who addressed last months’ National Left Fightback Conference in Melbourne, dismisses press stories of past Robe River walkouts over lack of ice-cream and peanut butter as sheer propaganda. “I’ve been there 12 years and I’ve never heard of that happening.” The reports served as a smokescreen, however, for Peko to set new precedents in wrecking work conditions and breaking a closed union shop.

“Despite agreeing ‘not to unreasonably deny access to shop stewards’, the ability to organise on the job is all but gone. Shop stewards can’t move from shop to shop.”

Written warnings, which can result in the sack, are given to anyone out of their normal work area, or even for calling strike-breakers “scabs”. “One bloke was sacked because he called a scab a scab in the pub!” says Graeme.

Union noticeboards have disappeared. And because Peko owns all the halls in the town, “Now our meetings have to be in carports, in people’s houses or the sporting club. New workers are screened and intimidated into not joining the union. Some are even hired on seven day contracts. We don’t even know if they are getting award conditions.”

Unions once had a say in joint committees with management. Now, despite “industrial democracy” being part of the new agreement, only the safety committee has union input.

Even that is only nominal, says Graeme. “There are a number of cases now that could only be described as the walking wounded on the site.”

The housing committee was crucial, as remoteness forces Peko workers to rely on company houses. “The unions used to make sure there was no queue jumping, that accommodation was suitable for families moving in and so on.

“Now all new employees have to sign a 31-clause tenancy agreement, which is tied to the industrial agreement and breaches of that could mean being evicted. People are refusing to join the union for fear of losing their house if the union takes strike action.”

The tenancy agreement even has a morality clause that debars people from doing anything “immoral’ or “unethical” in their own home!

“The only success from the dispute,” Graeme believes, “was that we won some money back for the time of the lockout. But we were re-employed, not reinstated after the lockout. So many people were reclassified into lower paying jobs and we lost a lot of accrued rights and payments.”

What makes all this worse is that Peko could have been beaten. But the ALP, the ACTU and other union leaders were worse than useless.

The Burke government paved the way for Peko with a heavy campaign to reduce strikes in the Pilbara, tying unions up in bodies like the Iron Ore Consultative Council with company and government reps.

“There was also what I call industrial conditioning,” says Graeme. “Unionists were sent off on government sponsored tours to Brazil to see the ‘competition’.”

This paid off for Peko. “When the delegates’ committee wouldn’t let the ore ship leave the dock, the AMWU’s Jack Marks and an entourage of ministers flew in. Marks gave a terrific spiel about how we should let the ship go with good Australian ore, or it’d get filled with nasty fascist South African ore. Think about the terrific PR if we let the ship go, he said.

“About 11 of us delegates let fly then, but we were denounced as company plants and saboteurs and because the members still had faith in the officials, they let the ship go.”

Graeme believes the dispute should have been broadened to stop all iron ore leaving the Pilbara. Instead, union leaders isolated it to Wickham and Pannawonica and merely sought financial support from the rest of the region.

The workers’ dispute committee had other ideas. “We set up finance, food and welfare and PR committees and organised radio contact throughout the region. We resolved to hold a tour of the Pilbara calling for industrial action.

“The union leaders had to stop this and they did by cancelling the tour and making it impossible for us to get on the sites. They told us we were living in cloud cuckoo land for thinking we could organise a walkout of the Pilbara.

“If they’d talked to them like we did before the dispute, they would have found that other workers were behind us, many in fact were chomping at the bit to take action. Instead they were called on to levy themselves, a very unpopular move and there was some difficulty enforcing the levy.

“When the Seamen were hit with 45D (Trade Practices Act) threats, their leadership packed it in. But the rank and file said bugger you, we’re still not crossing the picket line. So we then got Crean and Marks saying to us that we would be responsible for the seamen suffering.”

The strike committee were vital in building unity in the towns, especially the food and welfare committee which drew in many workers’ wives.

“This committee, which had women and men working together, was the hardest working of the lot and had a terrific effect on morale. In fact, women played a key role all the way through the dispute, from shop stewards to the food and welfare committee,” says Graeme.

“Despite all our efforts, we lost. We lost because we couldn’t win on our own. We needed the support of the rest of the union movement. I believe union opposition to the whole attack on work practices is insufficient.”

Indeed it is. And now all workers are to pay for the Robe River defeat, in the trade-off of work conditions for CPI rises under the new “two tier” wages system.


Kelty’s gall

Socialist Action no. 21July 1987 p.2

Graeme Haynes

Bill Kelty of the ACTU has recently published a document on the future of Australia’s trade union movement. In it, he has the unmitigated gall to try to use the experience at Robe River to bolster some very dubious arguments. His comments range from misleading statement to outright lies.

For instance, it is totally incorrect to say, as Kelty does, that Peko Wallsend backed down and re-instated its workers. It re-employed them. Workers were reclassified, lost entitlements and in some cases lost between $8000 and $10,000 a year in wages. (Not to mention copping punishment squads, multi-skilling, non-union labour, scabs, police harassment, etc.)

Kelty points to the company being unable to export ore because of the “supportive action by tug crews”. Actually, the metalworkers and other union officials ensure no interruption of ore supply to Japan from other ore companies and simply requested levies from the other sites.

Kelty says the dispute was eventually resolved in late January and gives Simon Crean a pat on the back for it. In fact the dispute was never resolved. The company had won a reduction of 400 workers when their target was only 185. Negotiations between Simon Crean and Peko boss Copeman were never sanctioned by the rank and file. The withdrawal of action which Kelty claims as a victory, proves nothing: the writs had never been part of the industrial dispute, only a consequence of it.

The whole experience shows how little the rank and file can rely on the industrial relations system. To suggest, as Kelty does, that this well-resourced opponent was defeated by the system is ludicrous. The fact that an emasculated trade union bureaucracy survived could be seen by some as a victory. But I think that when they examine their tills next financial year, they will discover some wounds as membership falls.

Kelty’s whole approach to dealing with the New Right employers like Peko-Wallsend is doomed to failure. Only educating and mobilising rank and file workers can win.


All work, no play at Peko

Socialist Action no.22 August 1987 p.2

Robe River, the scene of bitter industrial conflict in the West last year, has been transformed, according to the Perth Daily News.

A recent article enthused: “We were treated to a happy and dedicated group of workers who looked too busy smiling and enjoying their work to even contemplate industrial action.”

Peko Wallsend was happy to fund this media tour. Not so lucky was a theatre group performing a play about mine workers. They have been banned from the company towns.

“We are not in the game of censorship,” says the general manager. But no play – it would be too provocative.

And provocation is something that Peko knows all about.


No frolic at Robe River

Socialist Action no.28 March 1988 p.2

Like old generals reliving an old battle, the millionaire press keeps on going back to Robe River to gloat.

Latest has been the Bulletin, in an article which announces that “Robe River has been made to work.”

The report reads like a press release from Charles Copeman’s office. It rehashes  all the “rort” stories, with rapacious unions and money-hungry workers who lived a “year round frolic” of “swimming, snorkelling and sail-boarding.”

The Bulletin makes out that everything is now hunky-dory following Peko’s union-busting exercise. Morale is “extremely high, say middle management people, who plainly relish being in control once more… The real lesson of Robe River is that sufficiently tough-minded management can bludgeon the system to produce a tolerably fair and reasonable efficient result.”

“Fair for who?”” comments Robe River militant Graeme Haynes on the Bulletin PR job. He points out that the famous 284 “restrictive work practices and conditions” were merely ways of making the harsh Pilbara environment tolerable for daily living. The reports of “rorts” were invariably distortions. And Peko was previously happy to pay out for the conditions that did exist.

“What actually happened is that the price of iron ore fell – that is the whole point of the article. Even with the widely publicised restrictive work practices, they made vast profits.

“If the price falls again, they’ll have to find some more restrictive practices. Perhaps they’ll think 8 hours sleep is too much.”

Charles Copeman enthuses to the Bulletin that productivity is up 100% and Peko is producing three million tonnes more with 400 people less.

But Graeme Haynes looks at the human cost. “Four hundred people have left, with no redundancy payments. Many others would leave if they could afford it. I don’t know any unionist who wants to stay. For morale they have dislocated communities, suicide and miscarriages, heartbreak and disenchantment. And conditions are going backwards faster than it took to establish them.”

Ironically, the ACTU’s Bill Kelty counts Robe River as a victory for the union movement. Why? Because Charles Copeman tried to operate outside the Industrial Commission but was forced back within the system.

Even that sick joke has fallen flat. Peko has withdrawn from the existing industrial agreement and brimful of confidence, is negotiating for a new award. It wants to cut conditions like extra leave provisions, so important to people working in remote localities.

And Charles Copeman? He’s just resigned from Peko and is interested in a political career. And with mates like he has at the Bulletin he should have no trouble in getting started.


Robe River. Militancy revives

Socialist Action no.32 July 1988 p.2

Workers at Robe River, WA, took their first combined industrial action in 18 months in June. At the Cape Lambert port facility they struck for 3 days and at Pannawonica, the inland mining town, they struck for 24 hours.

So strong was the feeling that about 100 non-unionists joined in.

The main issue was the pay rise of 4% under the old wages system. Other mining companies in the area paid this a year ago. But Peko has used every tactic to avoid paying it. For example, they have responded to the unions’ log of claims with a list of counter claims which could result in substantial cuts in pay and conditions.

They have also been using QCs in the Commission which not only disadvantages unions whose advocates do not have legal training, but very effectively prolonging the hearings.

Peko’s recent publicity has pushed their record production and safety levels. Since their successful confrontation with the workforce in January 1987, production has increased dramatically with a reduced workforce.

Time lost due to injuries is very easy to reduce statistically – injured workers are now forced to perform so-called light duties. Previously the unions maintained that such a thing didn’t exist. Total injuries have gone down, but this is at least in part due to intimidation so that workers are afraid to report accidents: they risk being moved to lower paid jobs.

In any case the drop is actually a rise when the decrease in the number of workers from 1100 to 600 is taken into account.

Nonetheless Peko trumpets its “achievements” at every opportunity. This is in such marked contrast to the actual atmosphere among workers that they added a rider to their resolution to go on strike. The protested against “any proposition by the company that the workforce at Robe is happy and contented.”


Wage Deal: Robe River ructions

Socialist Action no.36 December 1988 p.2

Robe River workers have finally got their second tier, 4% pay rise.

But the price has been high: smoko tacked onto lunchtime and the abolition of the washing-up time which they had won through determined strike action.

Not everyone was pleased with this result and workers at Cape Lambert found a way to do something about it. They decided that without washing-up time, they would have to hand in their time cards dirty. But this made them impossible to process, so time has now been found for the workforce to wash its hands before handing in the cards.